Leaning into no.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about people pleasing. It’s such a big topic that I knew I would never say all that I needed to in one article, without losing you all. In that article I touched on saying no, and I wanted to come back and talk about that again. As a self confessed people pleaser, saying no is a difficult thing for me.

But what do I mean by not being able to say no? Well, whilst this behaviour impacts every facet of my life, my behaviour in the workplace is probably a good neutral example of what I’m trying to illustrate here. I’m a midwife. I’ve been working in a small Midwifery Group Practice, I am contracted for 38 hours a week of self managed hours (meaning I get paid a flat rate for 38 hours no matter how many hours I work) with four days a fortnight which must be rostered off call and off duty as mandated by our local agreement. In other words it’s law that I take those days off. It is a caseload model of care, which means that on the days I am rostered to work, I am available on-call 24 hours a day for the women in my care. Standard safety regulations apply – we cannot work more than 12 consecutive hours as a Primary Midwife, and we must have 8 hours off duty in each 24 hour period. Despite this written agreement, I felt pressured (be it real or imagined pressure) to please my team and the women in my care. To not let them down. To be seen as a team player. To be a “good” midwife.

I felt I could not say no, and this behaviour developed into a self destructive pattern. On a subconscious level I felt that anything less than yes would mean that I was seen as providing care that was not women-centred, and I would be viewed as a bad midwife or at the very least not as good as my colleague. I felt I would be judged harshly. I found it extremely difficult to say no to coming in on my days off for women in my care. I stayed at work for labour care after having already worked a 14 hour admin and clinic day (on that occasion I worked a 24 hour period with only 4 hours down time – during which I took two phone calls - because no one else wanted to do it). I felt pressured to be a “back up” Midwife on my days off because no one else was in town. I even agreed to do an online course that would be useful in the workplace while I’ve been on sick leave, because I didn’t feel I should say no. These are just a few examples. If I tried saying no, I inevitably changed my mind and reneged because I didn’t have the courage to stand up to what I perceived as a nasty look from a colleague, or a comment that implied that I was letting down the women in my care, or worse still letting down the team. I rearranged plans. I put the cap back on the wine. I said no to my kids. I missed social occasions, school functions, meals and sleep.

Writing this down now, it seems absurd: my days off and work hours are legally mandated and protected; my sick leave is for me to recover my health. Yet I still felt unable to say no. Every time I said yes when I should have said no, I was saying no to me. Every time I said yes when I should have said no, I was saying no to my family. Every time I said yes when I should have said no, it ate into my recovery time. It ate away at my spirit. It increased my stress levels. It compromised my values and it compromised my personal integrity. No one was getting all of me. Not the women in my care, not my team, not my family, and especially not me. Saying yes when I should have said no, was saying no to everything and everyone who is important to me. That is not wholehearted living.

In her book “The gifts of imperfection”, Brene Brown discusses how failing to set boundaries means that we end up feeling used and mistreated, and this is certainly how I was feeling for quite some time. I silently blamed my colleagues for “making me feel guilty” if I said no, for judging me if I said no, and I allowed myself to feel obliged to say yes. It is important to note that actually: no one else did this to me. I allowed this to happen because I didn’t set boundaries between my work time and my personal time. Why? I was people pleasing: feeling that I was not good enough, and needing external validation that I was good enough.

I am no longer going to say yes when I mean no. 

But how? How do we say no and set boundaries when we are so used to the opposite?

Many many months ago, I innocently picked up a random book in the airport to read on a flight from Cairns to Sydney. That book was “The life-changing magic of not giving a fuck” by Sarah Knight, which would prove to be just the catalyst for change that I needed. It has taken a long time – it has been nine months since I picked up that book. Within the first three months I realised something was uncomfortably wrong. The next three months saw the great realisation that I was extremely unhappy and felt disconnected from my family and my values (as well as being very unwell health wise). And it is only within the last three months that I have come to feel strong enough to begin to make changes.

Sarah writes about her personal journey into the world of saying no to the things she doesn’t want, so she can say yes to those she does. She uses a method which she has tagged as her “not sorry method”. The basics are: decide what it is you really don’t give a fuck about, and stop giving a fuck about those things. Don’t apologise for it, but don’t be rude about it. Release yourself from the worry, anxiety, fear and guilt of saying no. Take care of you first.

It’s actually pretty hard at first. It is not an easy thing to say no when we feel so much negativity associated with the word. I needed to find a way to ease into using the world no. I needed to find a way to practise saying no, without having to use the actual word. I listened to an interesting TEDx talk recently by Jose Gerald Suarez, whose topic was “The power of yes and the wisdom of no”. It sounds like a contradiction to what I’ve been saying all along really, but bear with me. As a beginner no-sayer, sometimes we need some little mind games to help us along, to trick ourselves into saying no, if you like. To trick ourselves into changing habits. In his TEDx Talk Jose talks about the importance of actually focusing your efforts on what you want to obtain, rather than focusing on getting rid of what you don’t want. 

In other words, if I found it so hard to say no, why not turn that around and actually start using my yes votes (which I'm so good at) to say yes to things that I really do need? If saying yes to things I disn't want in my life was saying no to myself, I needed to turn that the hell around! I had to start saying yes to ME.

Let’s look at this in the context of my workplace examples above. To borrow terminology from Sarah Knight, what do I actually give a fuck about in those scenarios? I give a fuck about:
  • Giving the woman in my care the focus, safe care and attention she deserves;
  • Having quality uninterrupted time with my family;
  • Focusing on improving my health.
Examples of how I could have responded in each scenario in a manner that says yes to what I need are:
  • "I don’t feel safe after working 14 hours, I need a meal and a break so I can safely care for this woman in the way she deserves”.
  • "I have an important event with my family today which I cannot reschedule, I won’t be available for back up until “x” o’clock”. Or I could have just turned off my phone – I’m entitled to on my day off.
  • "That course will be really useful to have. Right now I am going to focus on my return to good health so that I can give that course the attention is requires when I am well”.

Simple and effective, saying yes to what I need, without being rude or unreasonable. Each statement priortises what I need to happen, politely, without telling lies or making up excuses. Each response acknowledges that what I am being asked to do is important, whilst also stating clearly what I needed to happen for me. If I had said “yes” to what I needed in this way, I would have been saying "no" to working too many hours, not protecting my family time, and no to increasing my stress levels while I was unwell. Perhaps the easiest way for me to have said no to the things I didn’t want in these scenarios, would have been to simply say yes to the outcomes I did want.

But you know what? It is perfectly fine to just say a polite “no thank you, I can’t do that at the moment”. And I will get there. 

I am not far enough along this journey to tell you what the consequences of my new no-saying skills have been. I’m still practising. I am getting there – I was recently asked to discuss my plans to return to work (following recent illness). My people pleasing instinct immediately kicked in and I replied “yes let’s discuss that” – I felt some sense of shame about having had several months away from work, and wanted to please my managers by showing that I was super keen to get back to it. But when I took the time to actually be mindful and think about how my body was feeling, I realised that what I was feeling was: I’m still really unwell here; I don’t have my strength back at all; If I returned to work now, even for reduced hours, that would take away from the time and energy I have to work on improving my health and regaining my strength. The next time I was asked? I said no, I’m not ready (it took a lot more words and babbling, but I got there: this is a learning process after all). It was hard, it left me feeling pretty vulnerable. But then I reminded myself that vulnerability is where the magic happens.

I used to say yes because I felt I always had to prove that I was good enough. But I don’t need to prove that to anyone: I am good enough.

Today’s reference and reading list contains some really valuable information on saying no. If people pleasing is something you struggle with I really hope you can find the time to look through it, and find the skills to start saying yes to you.

References, reading and viewing list:

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